In January 2014, CEO & Co-Founder Paul Katzeff traveled to Africa to meet with two of our producer cooperatives. In this blog series, Paul shares his experience in Uganda and Rwanda.
When we left Jinja, we left with a deep satisfaction, having met some really serious people who were in the beginnings of something great. Two hundred elders were one day away from receiving a “Certificate of Completion” for the nine month course in Asset Based Community Economic Development offered by The Communities of SHALOM in collaboration with Drew University. This 3 credit course will give them the tools they need to enter the 21st century global trading environment and may be the only educational accomplishment many of them obtain (The certificate will be of parchment suitable for framing). I can see it now, hanging on a wood slab on a simple brick wall, inside a 12’x12′ square room with a red dirt floor, the only adornment to be found on any of the walls in the home of that proud community leader (and Organic Robusta coffee grower)
Nick and I felt that our trip had an auspicious beginning. We had a two pound sample of what looked to be a beautifully prepared Organic Robusta which we hoped to “cup” when we got to Mbale, and we had a mutually agreed-to trading relationship started if the coffee proved to be of good quality. It was not my primary purpose to search for another cooperative to work with, especially a coop that had never sold a pound of coffee before, but I use about 75,000 pounds of Robusta each year in our very popular, high caffeine coffee “Pony Express” which I now buy from Importers.
At Thanksgiving Coffee go to great effort to make sure we know the farmers we buy from and work with them directly. It is essential to our buying plan that the price farmers receive is high enough that they WANT to continue growing coffee. We want the farmer to love their trees because those trees are providing food, clothing, shelter, health care and education for their family and community. Trees that are loved produce better coffee, they are no different than tomato plants or marijuana plants: care for them, love them, and they will respond. That is the key to sourcing great coffee and sustaining the farmers’ efforts. Quality of life and quality of coffee go hand in hand.
The road from Jinja to Mbale was red clay – dry and dusty. It’s the same material that most buildings are made from. A great and endless building material. This photo is rich in information. A dirt highway comes to a paved road with electricity poles and wires, a billboard advertising a soda of some kind, two motorcycles, people walking and a truck loaded with hand-sawed slab lumber driving to market. The trees are semi arid in their type, not at all tropical. In this dry, dusty Ugandan moment where the paved road began, I started to ready myself for the work ahead, the major reason for my 23 hour trip to the other side of the world – Uganda is 11 hours ahead of California time. Paved roads mean you are getting close to something!
At a gas station close to Mbale we came upon this sweet fruit vendor. We ate some bananas for lunch, something I don’t think of doing in the USA. Bananas in the tropics are like candy – and you look upon them as safe energy food. I thought I was taking a still shot but the video was on and I was lucky to get her little hip rotation presentation of her wares and that wonderful smile as it formed. She made me feel special in a male/female kind of way. I felt that she actually saw me more deeply then I could ever see her.
Here you see the way they do building in Uganda. They are, surprisingly, not artisan bricklayers – they just are bricklayers. I could see holes in the backyard where the bricks came from: you rarely see truck loads of bricks being transported to building sites because the bricks are made on location.
I went to Uganda to visit the Interfaith Cooperative of Jews, Christians and Muslims called Mirembe Kawomera. This cooperative has an incredible story – and Thanksgiving Coffee Company became the story teller for this miraculous group. We have purchased their entire coffee crop each year since 2004, and their coffee has been Certified Fair Trade and Organic the entire time. We market this coffee to faith-based groups, Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and to people who believe in and work for Interfaith healing in a troubled world.
This cooperative presents, perhaps the greatest coffee story ever told, and we have seen our efforts to promote this cooperative bring a modicum of fame (Oprah’s O Magazine) and recognition (Tufts University Jean Mayer Award). We sell the coffee to over 200 religous groups and congregations nationwide and our supply of green beans was running out when I left for Uganda. The supply was running out because the 2012 crop, which was slated to be shipped December 2012 and to arrive in Oakland in May 2013, was eight months late. I went to Mbale to find out why.
I had some clues before I left:
- The contract required that all the coffee be from the central washing station.
- In a Skype call to the Mirembe Kawomera Coop (PKC) manager ard the full Board back in October 1013, I asked what was causing the delay and I was told that they could only produce 110 sacks that they brought through their washing station.
Because our contract was for 250 sacks (37,500 pounds purchased at $3.05/pound), they did not know what to do and were instructed by our Importer (in the USA) to blend in other Ugandan coffees with the washing station coffees to fill the container – and ship it to Thanksgiving Coffee Company for sale as PKC washing station coffee. This presented a problem of certifiable authenticity of the product Thanksgiving Coffee presents to our customers.
The system of authenticity had broken down and I was there to see if I could verify that 110 sacks were actually run through the central PKC washing station. I needed to verify that each farmer’s delivery was recorded with their name, amount paid and farm location – and that all of this was recorded in the Cooperative’s records for the Fair Trade and Organic Certifiers to verify through their own field trips to farms.
This was a serious effort on all our parts to get back on track. We all knew that the transparency issue is essential to the trust we use as a basis for working together. Similarly, our customers depend on trusting that what they wish to support is what they are buying – that their purchases are going toward the economic development of a community of courageous people who believed that by coming together in an interfaith coalition coffee cooperative, they could better their personal lives, and their community life as well.
Here’s a video clip from the first meeting to discuss our mission. I asked each member of the Board to help me remember each one of them when I got home because I was not good remembering names and putting them with faces.
To be continued…
A Trip to Africa (series archive)
Intro – I’m going to Africa
Day 1 – Arriving in Uganda
Day 2 – Dancing, Mango Trees & the Dry Mill
Day 3 – On the Road
Day 4 – Transparency, Trust & Relationships
Day 5 – Coffee Quality & A New Mystery
Day 6 – The Mystery Coffee’s Story